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Fighting the Filibuster News/Business. (2013) Larry Cohen, Communications Workers of America, discusses the work of the Democracy Initiative; poet Martin Espada. (CC) (Stereo)

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Frederick Douglas 17, Us 9, Douglas 8, Obama 8, U.s. 6, Harry Reid 5, New York 4, Rochester 4, Labor Union 4, America 3, Martines Bada 2, Stillness 2, Far 2, Ireland 2, Martine 2, Reid 2, Mr. Smith 2, Barack Obama 2, William Blake 2, Larry Cohen 2,
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  PBS    Moyers Company    Fighting the Filibuster  News/Business.  (2013) Larry Cohen,  
   Communications Workers of America, discusses the work of...  

    January 18, 2013
    11:00 - 11:59pm PST  

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this week on moyers & company -- >> what democracy means is that america gets a vote on the critical questions today. we haven't had that in decades in the senate. it dies there. it doesn't get discussed there like people believe. we need to bring back debate in the senate. >> and there are times when poets have to go to places that cannot be explained away as a matter of evidence and logic, that we have to be able to reach out and put our hands on the intangible, to touch it, to feel it. to see it.
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>> funding is provided by c carnegie corporation in new york, committed to philanthropy and to doing good in the world. the coleberg foundation with support from the partridge foundation. the park foundation, the he herb alpert foundation, committed to passion and creativity in our society. the bernard rappaport foundation. more information at macfound.org. the hkh foundation, barbara g.fleischmann foundation.
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welcome. circle next tuesday in red, the 22nd of january. that's the day the united states senate could decide whether to return from the dead by reforming the filibuster and allowing democracy to work. once upon a time, the filibuster enabled a clique of senators, or even just one, to prolong things by speaking. you had to hold the floor continuously by not shutting up until you drop. that's what happened when mr. smith went to washington. >> mr. smith is here to see democracy's finest show of filibuster. free speech in its most dramatic form. well, i'm going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause. even if this room gets filled
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with flies. and if all the armies come marching into this place, somebody will listen to me. >> no longer. the rules were changed in 1975, and these days that one senator, or a clique of them, can bring the entire senate to its these without being there in person or saying a word. while our founding fathers believed in checks and balances, they feared that kind of obstructionism. alexander hamilton, the handsome, conservative man on our $10 bill, argued against anything like it. the purpose would be, he wrote, to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of the government and to substitute the pleasure, caprice or artifices, to the regular decisions of a respectable majority. that's just what the republicans
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have been doing. since 2007 when they lost the majority in the senate, they mounted or threatened to mount nearly 400 filibusters, blocking everything from equal pay to equal work, job bills and reform. as a result, there are more vacancies on the federal courts today than when president obama first took office. but hold on. when democrats were in the minority and threatening to filibuster against george w. bush's judicial nominees, their leader, harry reid, had some kind things to say about the tactic. >> the filibuster serves as a check on power and preserves our limited government. right now the only check on president bush is the democrats' ability to voice their concern in this body, the senate. if the republicans roll back our rights in this chamber, there will be no check on power. the radical right wing will be free to pursue anything they
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want. >> now the shoe is on the other foot. i asked larry crane to discuss the double standard. 700,000 workers and many industries including media and telephone data services and health care. but that's just his day job. larry co hen is also a leader of the democracy initiative, a coalition as progressive and varied as the naacp, common cause, the sierra club, greenpeace, jobs with justice and the afl-cio. along with an affiliated campaign called fix the senate now, they are working hard to change the filibuster rules. take a look at their ad. >> as climate change threatens the world we leave to our children and good u.s. jobs move overseas, time in the senate has expired, as women earn less for men in the same jobs, time in the senate ticks by. it ticks by with no results because the system is broken. but we can fix it and make the
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senate work for us again. if our senators vote to end the silent filibuster and for common sense reforms. >> they have only hours to do so. unless the senate reforms the filibuster on tuesday, the minority wrecking crew remains in charge for the next two years. larry cohen, welcome. >> great being with you. >> if the democrats were back in the minority, would you be making this fight to reform the filibuster that you're making now? >> absolutely. because we believe that what a democracy means is that the american people are entitled to get discussion, debate and eventually a vote on the critical questions of the day. we haven't had that in decades in the u.s. senate. everything dies there. it doesn't get discussed and debated there as people used to believe. we need to bring back the debate in the u.s. senate. >> but if the republicans became the majority again, they might deny you the very thing you want. >> that means democrats who are in the minority would have to stand up, talk and fight back. >> talk. talk. >> really radical ideas.
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talk, talk, talk, yes. >> that's eliminated right now in the senate. >> there is no discussion of these issues unless you have 60 votes of the proposition. >> because it takes 60 members of the senate to vote to continue the discussion. >> it takes 60 just to put the bill on the floor right now. >> isn't there a double standard? the party that's in the majority wants to reform the filibuster until it winds up in the minority. >> i think there is, to some extent, a double standard, but we, the people, need to stick on the path of we want the democracy no matter what. playing defense in that way is limited. but more importantly, the senate resolution 4, which is what will be discussed in the caucus next tuesday before it comes to the senate floor, would maintain, in fact, it would strengthen the filibuster. it would actually say, filibuster, good, you have to talk. both sides would have to talk because the majority would have to talk as well. so what we're talking about is not limiting the rights of the minority, we're talking about getting issues on the floor of
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the u.s. senate starting next week. >> the 112th congress just ground to a halt, absolutely nothing done. the word record in recorded history. how did we get into this fix? >> well, starting in the '70s, it got worse and worse and worse. it used to be the filibuster was rare. very, very rare. so in lyndon johnson's tenure as majority leader which ended when he was vice president in january of '61, there was one filibuster in his six years. and harry reid's six years, almost 400. that's the contrast. it's gradual. the right to filibuster has been there since the modern senate was there. but it's the perversion of senators that are willing to filibuster anything, any single thing they bring this to bear. >> describe that perversion. >> that perversion is everything from the almost 100 judicial vacancies that you talked about to many examples of recess appointments in the executive branch. we just spent $3 billion on a
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presidential election and the president's appointees, most of them he makes now are most likely never to get confirmed, unlikely to get debated, certainly unlikely to get discussed and certainly unlikely to serve. >> you want to end the filibuster. what's behind that? >> senator jeff morgan would make it essential that people talk. this is what the american people want. it would encourage debate, it wouldn't push it away. >> what is your reform asking for, demanding next tuesday? >> four things. one, that the majority leader of the senate can put a bill on the floor for discussion and debate. right now he can't do that unless he has 60 votes to do that. he can't even proceed. >> number two. >> number two, nominations. the president makes nominations. there needs to be a clear way for those nominations to get discussed in a short period of time. not 30 hours of senate time, which is more than a week. but in a short period of time, they get discussed and they get
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a vote on nominations. number three, a conference committee. the house passes one bill. the senate passes another bill. what's supposed to happen is there is a conference committee, and they sort it out. they bring the bill back and then it's adopted by both houses. then the biggest issue is the talking filibuster. that's number four. once the majority leader puts a bill on the floor, which he would now be able to do, puts the bill on the floor, there has to be 41 senators present that object to prevent the bill from moving forward. if they do object, they then have to speak. they have to hold the floor. and yes, the minority can still stop a vote, but they will have to show up and they will have to speak out. right now you don't even know who is filibustering. not only do they not have to talk, they call their cloakroom and they say, i object. >> if they bring the senate to its knees, you want them to do it visibly. you want to be able to look at them on cspan and from the gallery and see who is holding
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the senate up. >> exactly. who is holding it up and what do they have to say and what does the debate sound like? we want a senate that debates, not a senate that hides. >> you said in other places the senate is broken, but is it more broken than it is held hostage? >> we would say broken because lots of energy goes into electing these senators individual skand then the resul are almost nothing. that's why we say broken. you could say held hostage, but we say broken because i think regardless of how the deck stacks up, republicans, independents and democrats, it should not function this way. we really do believe that. we think our members and working people in this country and most americans would say it's fair people get elected, at some point the majority should rule. that's the way it is in every other democracy in the world. >> as we talk, what's up with harry reid? he does seem to be backing away from the strong reform you propose? senate majority leader harry
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reid is voicing support for a set of changes to the current filibuster rules that would fall far short of the more sweeping proposals from people like mr. cohen. what's up? >> well, i think part of what's up is he's got a 4-5 democrats, many of them senior, in his own party that don't want to see this. at this moment they're trying to make their own deal with people like john mccain for next to nothing, from our point of view. you wouldn't see any of those four changes that we're pushing for. and i think he is reluctant, unfortunately, to go ahead with the overwhelming majority of democrats that he has. he has 51 democrats that would support senate resolution 4. and we need the american people to call in to senator reid and say, let's take a stand. let's bring democracy to the u.s. senate. >> the polls suggest that the majority of americans really want filibuster reform and want
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the talking filibuster back. >> right. overwhelming majority. two-thirds, at least. on the other side, 7 or 8 or 9% say, oh, yeah, they should be able to phone in from their fundrai fundraiser, and say, i object, and now you have unanimous consent, and to get out of unanimous consent, you need 60 votes to move forward. very few americans believed that's what they elected a senator to do. >> so a senator could be sitting somewhere off on capitol hill, raising money on the telephone which they all spend hours every week doing, ask there is a vote coming up, a bill being put forward, she can call the cloakroom and say, i filibuster? >> i object. it's not really a filibuster because the filibuster would mean you would be talking. so in this case, they just say, i object. there is no unanimous consent, so they can quickly shift the burden to the majority party, or to some coalition of 60, and if there's not 60, that bill or item does not proceed. it could be a nomination.
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it doesn't even have to be legislation. >> pretend i'm harry reid. it's monday afternoon after the inaugural speech. you're with him in his office in the capitol. look him in the eye and tell him what you want to do. >> you need to do what you said on the floor of the senate last spring. we need real change. we don't get right to the minority, but we need to make them talk. we need a motion to proceed, we need a clear path on nominations and we need to be able to help our country. our country is hungry for change, debate and discussion. we need that discussion. please, senator reid, don't back off. stick with the 51 senators who will be with you on that. if senator mcconnell was the majority leader, the rules would be far changed on january 3rd when they met for a few hours. they would be lockstep, they would change the rule so their agenda got passed. what we have to worry about is why aren't the democratic senators as a whole ready to stand up for working americans,
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working families in this country, for all americans and to stand up and talk and move this agenda forward? >> and why aren't they? >> i would say they're conflicted about that kind of change even though they run on it when they campaign. >> there is some responses to corporate contribution in the art for workers. >> far, far, far, far more responses. yeah. >> how do you change that? >> primaries. we have to have people ready to run that respond to the broad -- you know, the state labor union in this country, they're not going to come from labor but come from the progressive community, the same kinds of groups that are working together on the democracy front. candidates like elizabeth warren in massachusetts who you don't have to think twice about. sherry blome in iowa. i've only named a few. despite the fundraising problem, which is gigantic, it can be $20 million. where is $20 mill ion going to
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come from? we have the lowest registration in any democracy, let alone the turnout. so we're on voting rights, politics and senate rules, it's not just one thing, and we'll need to build a real movement to bring about a democracy here. >> your coalition is called the democracy initiative. who is funding your efforts? >> at this point everybody sort of funds it together. we're funding a lot of those ads, but it's voluntary -- >> we being labor? >> right, and we believe if we don't restore the democracy, the rest of the things our members want aren't going to be there. >> let me read you a column by the conservative journalist. someone needs to give the members of the democracy initiative a kick in the pants, a lock-like nudge, anything to move them from being weak, anything to alert them that it
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is they, not the cokes of the world, who actually run the country. >> that sounds like things turned upside down to me. i don't know what he's talking about. >> he's saying that progressive groups are setting the agenda now. >> none of our members feel that way, trust me. none. they feel like their standard of living is declining, their jobs are anywhere in the world, their health care is declining, retirement security, social security, their pensions are destroyed. they don't feel like they're running the world. >> you've been talking about this for some time now, talking about building a political and economic movement in effect to become, in one sense, the tea party of the left. that is, to hold the democrats accountable in the primaries for the core interests of their constituents, even for labor to become more independent of the democrats. >> labor itself will never change this country. in a fundamental way, labor has to work with the kinds of folks we talked about here, civil
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rights, in a much more basic way than they have the last 80 years. it has to be like core, we're in this together. we're going to fight foreclosures as much as we're going to fight for bargaining rights. we're going to fight climate change as much as we're going to fight to raise the standard of living. it's going to take that kind of labor movement, and i think a lot of us are ripe for that kind of labor movement. >> last year, 2012, labor took a series of defeats right on the chin in wisconsin, michigan and other places. i think you wrote recently that 88% of the workers in this country do not have collective bargaining rights, and 12% who do are constantly fighting a defensive battle. how do you change that? is labor dying? >> i think -- well, the way we change that is that part of the agenda, the economic justice part that the democracy part goes with it, but on the economic justice front, part of it is to get the partners, which there are now, the greens, the
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civil rights, the students, the others, to say we're never going to restore a decent economy here if working people have no rights. if people can't bargain with their employer, there is no place in the world where people who bargain can't raise their wages. i think our strategy is to link core issues together so that it's not just, quote, labor or particularly organized labor. as you said, 12%, and that includes the public sector. private sector is under 7%. it's not just labor talking about workers' rights, it's all of us who have a vision of economic justice. let's do something about economic inequality. let's figure out how to stig stigmatize the rising economy. i was at a meeting in california of young new stewards on saturday. this is 7 to 10 years. i've been doing this my whole life. i may not be there at the end of
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that period, but i'm sure, absolutely certain, that without that kind of basic movement in this country, not just the traditional union agenda, we don't have a chance. on the other hand, with that kind of agenda, i absolutely believe we can change this country as president obama talked about in 2008. the change you can believe in, the change you work for. >> what has president obama done for labor in these last four years? >> well, i think he's tried to do quite a bit. i think in his heart he definitely supports, you know, working families. part of the outcome piece is what gets through the u.s. congress. so he definitely supported health care bill much more like speaker pelosi than what we ended up getting through the senate finance committee, onto the senate floor and eventually adopted a year later. he definitely supported workers' rights legislation. he definitely supported much more agressive moves to stop the foreclosures. he definitely supported climate change. so part of this is really -- you know, we would love to see more active white house support for
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these democracy initiatives so that the change that i'm sure he still believes in has some reality to it instead of just on the back bench somewhere. >> did he fight hard enough? i don't want to put you on the spot. yeah, i want to put you on the spot. >> you can put me on the spot. >> i wonder why labor keeps rolling over for the democrats and for the president. >> we're trying not to roll over, by the way, particularly on this because the democrats are solely responsible next tuesday on the senate rules. it has nothing to do with the republicans. they're solely responsible. >> you're saying the democrats can win this without the republicans? >> yeah, they won't get any republican support for this. it's solely up to the democrats. >> so how many votes do they have? >> they have 51 to do senate legislation, they just have to do it. >> next tuesday. >> they can absolutely do it if they choose to. on the other hand, if they go with the rationale that says, we want to have bipartisan support for this. we want to do it the old way where technically they would
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need 33% to change the rules, then guess what? we'll never see the change, two more years will go by and the bills won't get discussed again. and we'll pretend to have a democracy we don't have. we like to roll the union rather than roll over. we would say democrats need to stand up in this country for democracy. in a way we're willing to fight on the issues of the democracy. senate rules is the easiest of those because next tuesday, 51 elected democrats can change it. but we also have to take on these harder fights. what happened to voting rights? was were only 600,000 americans registered? we have to take up these issues. >> so if three of four of the democrats that could win for you next thursday betray you, abandon you, what would you do? >> five can go because vice
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president biden has said he supports these things. we'll see. if you had 50 plus him, there you have the new rules for next congress. >> but if you leave next tuesday, you have, as based on the past, almost nothing gained in congress. >> we will know who's who, even even though they will look at primaries, we need to look at saying, guess what? we're not going to get involved at all, none of the progressives. if you have a republican taking over that seat, that's the way it goes. strong worried, i might add. we have to show that we can make a dimps. >> are they inaccurate words? >> no, i feel that way sometimes. >> corporate breaks get in because democrats -- >> a lot of times labor doesn't get in because corporate democrats won't move it along. >> that's right. we don't call it out because people call it out and say, at
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this point it worse. that's why we will work inside. it comes from working and running and fighting inside. we have to do the same thing. and we need the equivalent of a progressive caucus as we have in the house fighting to define progressive values and being willing to stand fup, especially when you see something as bad as these set of rules. >> larry cohen, thank you very much for being with me. >> my pleasure and my honor. thank you. ♪ on this inaugural weekend of barack obama's second term, i've asked martines bada to share with us what he experienced four years ago, shortly after barack
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obama was elected as our first african-american president. you need to know that martines grew up in a rough section of new york. brooklyn for you out of towners. but when his family moved, he encountered racism head on. he went to law school and became an advocate for tenants rights in boston where he began to scratch poems on legal pads while waiting in court houses for cases to be called. you can't read any of his 16 books of poems and essay, and most recently, the trouble ball, without understanding a man who is a struggling writer, whose past is a living, breathing news whispering over his shoulder as he scribbles the names of ancestors who once pulled the oars over troubled waters. it was in the wake of president
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barack obama's victory that brought him here, to the former slave frederick douglas skpchlt with it, a poem. >> rochester, new york, november 7, 2008. this is the long titude and latitude of the impossible. this is the epicenter of the unthinkable. this is the crossroads of the unimaginable, the tomb of frederick douglas three days after the election. this is a world spinning away from the gravity of centuries where the grave of a fugitive slave has become an altar. this is a tomb of a man born as chattel who taught himself to read in secret, scraping the letters in his name with chalk on wood now on the anvil flat
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stone, a campaign button fills the o in douglas. the button says obama. this is the tomb of a man in chains who left his fingerprints on the slave breaker's throat so the whip would never carve his back again. now a labor union t-shirt drapes itself across the stone, offered up by a nurse, a janitor, a bus driver, a sticker on the sleeve says, i voted today. this is the tomb of a man who rolled his call to arms off the press, peering through spec at that ke-- spectacles at the abolitionist headline. now a newspaper headline says, obama wins. this is the stillness at the heart of the storm that began in the body of the first slave
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dragged aboard the first ship to america. yellow leaves descend in waves and the newspaper flutters on the tomb, like the eyes of a slave closing to watch himself escape with the tide. believers in spirits would see the pages trembling on the stone and say, look how the slave boy teaches himself to read. i say a prayer, the first in years, that here we bury what we call the impossible, the unthinkable, the unimaginable now and forever, amen. >> how did you come to write that poem? >> well, i happened to be in rochester, new york doing a reading at a local community college right after the election
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of barack obama. and i discovered, to my surprise, that frederick douglas was buried there. and so i said, take me to frederick douglas. and so i went with one other person and discovered the tomb in the condition in which it's described in the poem. >> what did you know about frederick douglas that wanted you to go there in the first place? >> frederick douglas was, for me, the quintessential american, maybe the greatest american. he was both liberated and liberator. he liberated himself. he went on to liberate others. >> slaves who were still in bondage. >> exactly.
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and wrote some of the best autobiographies that this country has ever seen. so for me this was a matter of pilgrimage, a matter of some urgency. he was a dreamer, indeed, and realized his dream. and what is more classically american than that? >> you called him somewhere the most complete person of the -- the most complete american of the 19th century. >> yes. >> here we have a human condition slavery which had been there present for thousands of years and had been unquestioned, for the most part, for thousands of years. and here is douglas imagining the unimaginable, the unthinkable, the impossible. not only would he liberate himself as he did by escaping, but he would then turn around and liberate others. he would raise the consciousness of the world, as he did when he went to great britain, he went to ireland. frederick douglas was brought to
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ireland by the temperance movement to speak against slavery. he spoke in cork and people are still talking about it. >> what were you feeling there? >> i was trying to catch lightning in a bottle. i was trying to capture the collective feeling that we shared when we all made history upon the election of the first african-american president. that sense of euphoria, that sense that we had changed the world, that we had made history. because if we're going to make history, again, we're going to have to recap tour that feeling. >> do you have that feeling this inauguration? >> i still have the same feelings that are expressed in the poem. the poem is independent of the performance of barack obama and the white house.
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it's independent of forces and circumstances that i could not possibly foresee or predict when i wrote the poem. the poem is about transcendence of a historical moment. it was triggered by a very historical moment, but it seeks to transcend the historical moment because it is very much about breaking away taken-for-granted realities. >> taken-for-granted realities. >> yes. >> which is? >> that the world is as we see it and it always will be. >> hmm. a >> and poets have been saying this for centuries. poets have been trying to get across this message in one form or another. william blake, the great english poet, wrote in one of his prov
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epro proverbs, what was once proved is now only imagined. >> of course, they thought of him as a madman. >> absolutely. >> what do you take that to mean? >> i take it to mean that all we have to do is look at history to see that things change, and we cannot possibly imagine at the moment of our existence how they will change. we have to have a certain kind of faith. it's paradoxical, but i believe that much of what we do politically is based on what we call facts, what we call evidence. there also has to be an element of faith. whether that faith is in a divine being or not, i do have a faith in history. and when we look at the tomb of frederick douglas as an altar, deck kraorated as it was that de
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can see that faith in history played out in history. this was a tomb of a man who was a slave. he could not vote, he could not belong to a labor union. and forget about the abolition of slavery, that was a taken-for-granted reality in the world in which frederick douglas was born in 1818. and look what happened. and now there is an african-american president, and that is -- i'm not making a crude comparison between the evolution of slavery and an election of an african-american president, i am saying that this is a measure of change. it is a measure of progress. and for those of us who are per versely comforted by the idea that change never happens, i would point to this. >> you talk in the poem about this tomb in rochester being the longitude and latitude. talk a little bit about that.
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>> well, i felt that i was standing at the very physical place where history was breaking through the ground. i refer, in another poem, walking through the world, soaking up the ghosts through the soles of my feet. and i felt at that moment that this is what was happening. and, you know, it wasn't an earthquake, it wasn't like that. it was the polar opposite of that sensation. there was an unearthly quiet, and i could hear nothing but those leaves falling from the trees with the gentlest breeze. and i had this strange sensation. why don't we see 10,000 people here? why aren't we all here gathered at the tomb of frederick douglas to say yes and to say thank you. and it was me and the person who
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brought me there, at the longitude and latitude, standing before the grave of this slave who changed history and made the history of the present day possible. without douglas, there is no oba obama. >> without lincoln, there is no obama, so it's not only a matter, is it, of faith in history, it's a matter of faith in people who have the imagination and the audacity to make history. >> absolutely. and certainly frederick douglas understood his role in terms of acting as an advocate during lincoln's administration. he was obviously putting some pressure on the white house. at the same time he was issuing a call to arms to his own community to rise up because he understood that history ultimately comes from below. you know, he is enveloping
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lincoln in a movement. there is a movement that surrounds lincoln and the other abolitionists to move all this forward and make it a reality. >> there were not 10,000 people there with you at the tomb, but the poem suggests someone else had been there and left this newspaper? >> there were other people who had come before me and had left various objects. i don't know who they were. someone had left a newspaper, perhaps aware, perhaps not, that douglas himself had been a journalist, that douglas himself had been an editor, that douglas himself would have appreciated a newspaper left at his tomb. someone else left a labor union t-shirt, and i found that particularly extraordinary -- >> what did it say? >> well, it was from the service workers union, and there was that sticker on the sleeve that said, i voted today. remember those?
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>> the sciu. >> yes. and that's when i began to envision, who has left this behind? someone who was a member of this union. who were they communicating with? was it douglas, they were attempting to say to him, look what happened a few days ago? i don't know. >> you're not going mystical on us, are you? >> maybe. >> i hope not. >> yes. definitely. >> what do you take that question to mean? >> i take that question to mean that there are times when poets have to go to places that cannot be explained away as a matter of evidence and logic. that we have to be able to reach out and put our hands on the intangible, to touch it, to feel it. to see it. >> martine, where do you think
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this language of the impossible, the unimaginable, comes from? >> for me it comes from poetry. and it comes from the tradition, the poetic tradition to which i belong. it comes from walt whitman, it comes from pablo naruva, and it comes from some of any contemporaries as well. >> what is happening in that poetry? >> what is happening in that poetry is we are breaking through the boundaries of what we accept as a given every single day. we see something else as possible. it is an act of the imagination, and too rarely, people see the connection between the imagination and the political. there is such a thing as the political imagination.
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>> yes. >> you know, and oftentimes those of us who speak in the language of the impossible or the unthinkable, the unimaginable, are called idealists or dreamers or mad -- hello, william blake -- but we're also pragmatists. we also understand the real world, we also understand the need for visions of a better world because the alternative is despair. and despair is dangerous. >> anybody who talks the way you talk in politics would be dismissed as utopian, margin marginalized as sometimes poets are, right? >> yes. >> why do you think that is? is that because political people can't see the dot on the horizon that you see? >> we associate utopia with science fiction showing those visions gone wrong. we associate utopia with how we
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perceive communism, especially soviet communism. because utopia has been so discredited, so dragged through the mud politically, especially during the years of the cold war, that anyone who speaks in that language is dismissed in one form or another. >> would you call frederick douglas utopian? barack obama utopian? >> frederick douglas, i imagine, was like the other abolitioni s abolitionists, regarded as dabbling in dreams. and would have been dismissed as a dreamer, or worse, a fraud. because when his first autobiography came out, when the narrative came out, many people questioned whether he had written it himself. it was impossible that a slave could have written these words. it must have been one of his abolitionist friends, one of his white abolitionist friends. it must have been garrison, et
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cetera. well, it turns out that, indeed, douglas wrote those words. >> do you feel the same way four years later about that moment in rochester? >> yes. absolutely. >> do you feel the same way about obama? >> i did not have very high expectations for obama. he is a politician. he is a pragmatist. he does what he has to do. i have my own criticisms of obama having to do with guantanamo, especially. the drones. there are other issues i could cite. but fair is fair. he also gave us a puerto rican
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supreme court justice, sonia sotomayor. i say withat with pride. i'm from puerto rico. and let's not forget, in the last four years, the most fa t fanatical degree of obstructionism from the republican party. as the president tried to negotiate and negotiate over and over again, he was rebuffed by this zealotry that has taken over the republican party. this is not the republican party
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anymore. >> you are concerned about the concrete realities of struggle and the people who are poor, the working folks of both puerto rico and this country, brings me back to the political reality of the performance of a president. are working people better off because of this first afternoon president? are the poor people you used to represent better off? are the latino farmhands breathing pesticides? all those kids trying to learn in overcrowded classes with overworked teachers, has that election four years ago made a difference to them? >> i will say this, that in terms of economics, in terms of everyday realities, i cannot say with any certainty that people are better off now than they were four years ago. i will say this, that the poem i
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wrote, which you just heard, is about a vision of something different, something better, the unthinkable, the impossible, the unimaginable. without the vision, and i think this is something that goes beyond the poets. without the vision comes despair. with despair comes self-loathing. with self-loathing comes self-destruction. drug abuse, domestic violence, other forms of crime. the essence of gang warfare according to luis rodriguez and others who have worked with gangs is the destruction of the mirror image. you cannot lash out at the one that is truly causing you pain and grief, so you lash out at those who are closest to you and those who look just like you.
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>> hmm. >> having a vision of another world is a barrier to that. frederick douglas did much more than lobby for the election of abraham lincoln. frederick douglas was tireless. frederick douglas was working as a journalist, he was lecturing, he was aj agitating, he was knocking on the door of the white house, whether the white house wanted him to come in or not. he was not seeing social change with the development of lincoln, so why would we see change with the president barack obama. my beloved friend who died three years ago january -- >> historian, agitator -- >> historian, agitator,
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activist. he dismissed barack obama saying he would have to be enveloped in a social movement. we have to push him in the right direction. and the question i ask is, did we? did we do enough? or did we put our weapons down and did we then sit back and wait for something to happen, again, forgetting that the change that we want comes from below, it comes from a movement. it comes from putting pressure on those who have power to do the right thing. so when people tell me one way or another that what i represent is a utopian vision, i say, bring more poetry into those schools that are failing. bring more poetry to the prisons where our young people in the latino community and beyond are being locked up in record numbers. bring more poetry into the
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hospitals. bring more poetry into all the places where poetry is not supposed to go. and bring it in with the understanding of what it can do. and then, little by little, things will happen. i cannot measure the effect of this poem or any poem on the world. poems can't be quantified in that way. they can't be boxed or labeled or sold in that way. thank god for it. but i do believe that poetry can save us. >> you make it clear in your writings and in your poetry that it's one thing to envision change as a poet and another to work for change as a politician. as you were a lawyer for the poor, you say it takes both kinds to move history. >> i believe -- yes, absolutely. we think of social change as a
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kind of mosaic or a quilt as many parts contributed to that mosaic or quilt, and understanding also the social change in our linear, that it simply doesn't move in a straight line. there is progress and then we fall back, progress and then we fall back. it zigs and zags in figures of eight. i will also say this, that the visionary and the pragmatist, the notion they're two different people is a false notion. we're setting up a false dichotomy. i spent years as a services lawyer, and i was surrounded by other services lawyers, and they believed in justice, too. they believed justice was possible, and we were surrounded by a notoriously unjust system. we could not have thrown ourselves into that system day after day, into that machinery, without believing we could change it. >> did you? >> yes. i think by our very presence, we
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changed it. and sometimes those changes are changes that happen years later. and that is something else, another element of social change. who knows how the election of barack obama will affect the world in 50 years or 100 years? who knows how the poetry will change the world in 50 years or 100 years? it is ultimately an act of faith. you throw a poem into the atmosphere, we breathe it in and we go on. >> so what's next? what's next that is presently unthinkable, unimaginable, impossible? >> war. and i don't say that in terms of the complete and utter abolition of war. i say that with the mentality that still affects this culture and the body politic.
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i think about the fact that as we debate budgets yet again, and i will say parenthetically i am here as a poet, not a politician. but there must be a way that we change that mindset. as we scramble around trying to find dollars for basic human nee needs, let's start looking at the military and let's start looking at waging war in a different way so that we begin moving in the opposite direction. and maybe it takes 100 years. but it can be done. >> so with this discussion as our new context, would you read litany at the tomb of frederick douglas? >> this is the longitude and latitude of the impossible. thls t
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this is the epicenter of the unthinkable. this is the crossroads of the unimaginable. the tomb of frederick douglas three days after the election. this is a world spinning away from the gravity of centuries where the grave of a fugitive slave has become an altar. this is the tomb of a man born as chattel who taught himself to read in secret, scraping the letters in his name with chalk on wood. now, on the anvil flat stone, a campaign button fills the o in douglas. the button says obama. this is the tomb of a man in chains who left his fingerprints on the slave breaker's throat so the whip would never carve his back again. now, a labor union t-shirt drapes itself across the stone offered up by a nurse, a
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janitor, a bus driver,. a sticker on the sleeve says, i voted today. this is the tomb of a man who rolled his call to arms off the press, peering through spectacles of the abolitionist headline. now a newspaper spreads above his dates of birth and death. the headline says, obama wins. this is the stillness at the heart of the storm that began in the body of the first slave dragged aboard the first ship to america. yellow leaves descend in waves, and the newspaper flutters on the tomb like the sails douglas saw on the bay, like the eyes of a slave closing to watch himself escape with the tide.
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believers in spirits would see the pages trembling on the stone and say, look how the slave boy teaches himself to read. i say a prayer, the first in years, that here we bury what we call the impossible, the unthinkable, the unimaginable, now and forever, amen. >> the book is "the troubled ball." the poet is martines bada. martine, thank you for being with me. >> thank you very much. ♪ that's it for this week. i have some further thoughts on our website about the filibuster
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and howard cripple's thought on democracy. see you here and see you next time.
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